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Demonstrators protest election results in belarus { February 2006 }

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   http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=1752024

http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=1752024

Demonstrators Continue Protest in Belarus
Thousands of Demonstrators Defy Belarus Authorities for Third Day of Rallies to Protest Election
By JIM HEINTZ
The Associated Press

MINSK, Belarus Mar 21, 2006 (AP)
MINSK, Belarus - Thousands of Belarusians demonstrated on a central Minsk square for the third straight evening Tuesday, swelling the ranks of a core group that had spent the previous night to protest the extension of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's rule.

Opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich, who has denounced the election that gave Lukashenko a new five-year term as a fraud and called for a new vote, urged demonstrators to keep up daily protests and called for a major show of strength Saturday.

"Come here every day to speak of freedom," Milinkevich said, speaking in the glow from TV cameras after the lighting on Oktyabrskaya Square was shut off, plunging protesters into darkness and adding to concerns of a crackdown by security forces.

"We will stay here until the 25th, and on the 25th we will gather here to fight for our future," said Milinkevich, who insists he is not the leader of the demonstrations.

Saturday is the anniversary of the declaration of independence of the first, short-lived Belarusian republic in 1918, and a traditional day for Lukashenko's opponents to hold protests.

"The authorities want to destroy this small city of freedom," he said, speaking as the crowd swelled on the third straight night of protests, though it fell far short of the 10,000 who gathered at the first rally Sunday night after polls closed. "We will not let them do it."

The opposition has set up about 15 tents to try to lay the groundwork for around-the-clock actions resembling Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution that forced a rerun of a fraudulent presidential election.

Milinkevich spoke shortly after ambassadors from European Union countries, including Britain, France, Latvia and Lithuania, visited the tent camp to show their support for opponents of a leader who has been branded a dictator by the West.

International observers have said the vote was neither free nor fair, and Europe's main human rights organization said it was a "farce." The United States has called for a new election.

Police have harassed people entering the square but made no move to crack down on the unprecedented protest in this former Soviet republic.

Lukashenko, a former collective farm director who has been in power for 12 years, won the election with nearly 83 percent of the vote, according to official results. Popular among many Belarusians for providing economic and political stability, his victory had been expected.

But Milinkevich, the main opposition candidate, denounced the result as "monstrously inflated" and called for a new vote. He said in an interview with The Associated Press that Lukashenko should be excluded.

"We are demanding a repeat election without the participation of Lukashenko. For us, this is very important. He does not have the constitutional right" to run again, Milinkevich said. He was referring to a referendum denounced by the opposition as rigged that abolished term-limits for the president, opening the way for Lukashenko to stand again.

The opposition is trying to mimic techniques that worked in Belarus' southern neighbor, Ukraine, where the Orange Revolution brought opposition leaders to power. But crowds of 100,000 or more jammed central Kiev for weeks in December 2004, forcing a rerun of a flawed presidential election.

Demonstrators in Minsk occasionally broke into singing "Razom Nas Bahato" ("Together We Are Many"), the emblematic song of the Orange Revolution.

The protest began in Minsk on Sunday evening, when some 10,000 people flooded into the square for a four-hour demonstration that was extraordinary for its size and for the noninterference by usually heavy-handed police.

About 5,000 gathered Monday night, dwindling to some 250 die-hards who stayed overnight, many locking arms to protect the tent camp on the cold paving stones.

"We plan to stay here ... until the moment when the vote is pronounced falsified, when the authorities admit this and a new election is announced," said a 21-year-old student who gave his name only as Alexander, one of a dozen people sitting among the tents.

Tuesday night's protest was about the same size as Monday's. As a few dark-clad police milled near the edge of the crowd, demonstrators sang along with songs blaring from speakers.

In Ukraine and in Georgia's "Rose Revolution" in 2003, protests grew as police did not interfere. But Lukashenko, who has repressed opposition parties and independent media, is seen as unlikely to tolerate any serious challenge to his rule.

Two top opposition figures, United Civil Party leader Anatoly Lebedko and his deputy, Alexander Dobrovolsky, were detained Tuesday and sentenced to 15 and 10 days in jail, respectively, for taking part in an unsanctioned protest. Milinkevich's two sons were detained briefly Monday.

Andrei Denko, head of a leading opposition newspaper called Nasha Niva, was detained near the square. Milinkevich's staff also said that 109 people were detained in connection with the protests overnight.

The events in the nation of 10 million have set the West against Russia. Amid U.S. and EU criticism of the vote, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been seeking to restore Moscow's influence after Western-backed leaders came to power in Ukraine and Georgia, congratulated Lukashenko on his re-election.


Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Copyright 2006 ABC News Internet Ventures



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